Friday, April 13, 2012

Jack of Shadows (Zelazny, Roger)

Rating: 5
Year: 1971
Genre: Fantasy
Read Again? Yes

Jack the master thief is nabbed at the Hellgames: his presence alone (even as a bystander) is reason enough to suspect that he intends to steal the game trophy, the Hellflame.

He is executed. Because he's a Darksider, he has a number of lives, but dying is still no small thing.

He awakens several years hence in the Dung Pits of Glyve and sets out to gain revenge upon those who sent him there, most notably his worst enemy, the Lord of Bats.

As he walks from the Pits, he seeks to avoid capture--but the Bat Lord has been waiting: Jack is imprisoned and tormented in payback for stealing some magical manuscripts. Jack's execution was only the beginning.

Once he wins his freedom, Jack's revenge could bring the end of the world.

This is a quick, easy read, though Zelazny doesn't spend much time fleshing the characters out.

Roadshow: Landscape With Drums (Peart, Neil)

Rating: 5
Year: 2006
Genre: Biography/Travel
Read again? Yes

For several years I've been wanting to read Peart's books to see whether his prose is as good as his lyrics for Rush. Maybe it's not as evocative or poetic, but a book takes different writing skills than does a song--and he does a fine job.

In the first chapter, Peart takes us on the road along Interstate 40, nominally following old Route 66, from his home in Los Angeles to the tour's first venue in Nashville, Tennessee. He gives brief sketches of scenery, bumper stickers, reminiscences from the band's beginnings or most recent tour. He describes old diversions for days off--building models, bicycle tours, reading, several abortive attempts at writing fiction. Anything to kill time during the boring stretches of highway travel.

We see a side of the author that most fans never see; he used to have a reputation for being standoffish, unapproachable, and rude toward the invading fan horde. His writing here--and in interviews for the Rush biopic "Beyond the Lighted Stage" reveals a man who can play his drums before 500,000 screaming Rush fans but who is terribly shy and uncomfortable under fame's microscope.

Here, on the road with Michael (the R30 Tour's security director) and their motorcycles, he's not Neil Peart the Greatest Rock Drummer Of Our Time (and he'd be very uncomfortable if you called him that to his face); no, he's Just Neil, an anonymous guy on a bike who takes the occasional smoke break, stays overnight in a Best Western, and has a generous serving of The Macallen single-malt before dinner: "When I'm riding my motorcycle, I'm glad to be alive. When I stop riding my motorcycle, I'm glad to be alive."

Chapter 1 comes to a close 2-1/2 days later with the weary riders pulling up to the practice venue.

The rest of the book follows the same pattern, with snapshots of shows old and new, rides past and present, moments with friends and family, all tied together with life on the smallest, most out-of-the-way roads on the way to the next show, passing farms and tiny towns and meeting real people, regular people, ordinary people along the way.

I was amused to find that Peart "collects" church signs--
--We have no new messages
--To prevent burning, use son block
--If you take satan for a ride pretty soon he'll want to drive
--Faith is a higher faculty than reason
--To belittle is to be little
--Why worry when you can pray?
--He is no respecter of persons

--each of which get some snarky comment or launch a philosophical discussion once he and Michael are off the road and drinking their evening Macallen. The thoughts triggered by "He is no respecter of persons" is especially worth reading.

Another running joke is that Peart doesn't give the venues' corporate names in the book; he names them "Lodging and Entertainment Corporation Amphitheater" or "Consumer Electronics Chain Amphitheater" or "Natural Gas Corporation Theater" or whatever. He describes fans who've been to so many shows that the band gave them nicknames (license plate chick, the happy guy), remembers seeing the Fan's Girlfriend phenomenon over the years (she hates the music, hates the band's place in her BF's affections). There are the inevitable fans who push a little too far, following Peart's bus out of the venue lot and down the highway--do they want autographs, or is it some lunatic who wants those secret lyric messages decoded?

When he arrives in London to begin the European leg of the tour, there are heartbreaking memories of Peart and wife Jackie trying to absorb the loss of their teen-aged daughter in 1997; they went to London hoping to get away from publicity and reminders. Less than a year later, Jackie was dead of cancer. Peart goes out of his way to avoid triggers this time around (the show must go on), but it's a hard couple of days.

Still, this isn't the book for dwelling on those losses, though there are many other places that bring the occasional stab of memories: a museum trip in St. Louis when Selena was nearly 16, Peart keeping it short: "I love those memories. And hate them, too."

Star Fall (David Bischoff)

Rating: 2.5
Year: 1980
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? In another 15 years

I'd been looking for this book for most of a decade; couldn't remember the title or author, but ultimately found it when I remembered some of the plot highlights.

The first time I read it was in the 1980's; I traded it off at a used-books store and forgot all about it. That wasn't a bad call at all.

We begin with Philip Amber, master assassin, whose target is a mobster named Theodor Durtwood. Almost from the beginning of the caper, things go to crap. He wastes Durtwood, but it's a sloppy job. He escapes, only to be nabbed by his enemies.

Next we meet Todd Spigot, a fat, ugly lump of boring headed out on vacation to Earth to escape his overbearing mother. He's scheduled to board the space liner Star Fall, a monstrosity of a ship with all the luxury and spectacle a vacationer could want. But Todd makes a quick stop at the Steinmetz Body Parlor to trade his fat, ugly, lumpy body in for an exciting bemuscled Adonis (if you're going, go in style!).

Just after Todd-as-Adonis leaves in his new body, Philip gets to the Body Parlor, ready to swap out of his heavily damaged carcass and back into his beefcake Adonis body, stashed with Steinmetz for safe-keeping.


Hilarity ensues as Philip boards the Star Fall shuttle wearing the fat, ugly lump of boring and sits next to Todd-as-Adonis!

They're joined by Alexandra Durtwood, the mobster's daughter, bent on avenging her dead father....

Then there's Ort Eath, a standard megalomaniacal alien who just wants to blow up Earth. Star Fall is his weapon.

Oh, and Todd's Adonis body is actually a MacGuffin Mk 12 combat body with a mind of its own. It convinces Todd, Philip, and Alexandra to join forces to defeat Ort Eath and save the Earth!

This book could have been better. There were some comical misspellings, such as bombay for bomb bay, hurled for hurtled, pouring for poring, ensured for insured, and their's for theirs. I felt like I was being read to by Ed Wood more often than not. Or like I was reading one of Brian Daley's "Han Solo" books--pretty straight-line plot motion, no real surprises or reason to care about most of the characters.

The main actors are bland, standard (hunky hero in Todd, hot chick in Alexandra); the bad guy's out for revenge and has a god complex. The body-swapping tech twist--a MacGuffin called MacGuffin!--is amusing, but not really enough to make up for the clunkier parts of the plotting and characterization.